Fork the System Podcast Episode 002
Back to School on a Pesticide-Free Campus
Mackenzie Feldman: A college student who ignited a movement
Published August 20, 2022
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In this episode of Fork the System, we talk with Mackenzie Feldman, whose concerns about glyphosate use around her college volleyball court motivated her to spring into action. College student turned activist, Mackenzie kicked Monsanto’s glyphosate and other toxic pesticides off University of California campuses, shifting the colleges to organic landcare. And she didn’t stop there. “Herbicide-Free Campus is just one small piece, but I hope that it can give people something tangible that they can do.”
It starts with a ripple of inspiration… you can change your home, your school, your community… you can make a difference, too.
About our guest:
Mackenzie graduated from UC Berkeley in Spring 2018 with a degree in Society and Environment and a minor in Food Systems. While attending UC Berkeley, Mackenzie and Bridget created Herbicide-Free Cal after the two got herbicides banned from their beach volleyball courts and decided to expand the campaign to the rest of the campus. Upon graduating in 2018, Mackenzie expanded the campaign to the rest of the UCs, and then nationwide, and Herbicide-Free Campus was born. The campaign resulted in the entire University of California system going glyphosate-free; HFC also worked with the Protect Our Keiki Coalition to get all herbicides banned from every public school in the state of Hawaii. Mackenzie received the 2019 Brower Youth Award for her work with HFC. Mackenzie is also a Food Sovereignty Research Assistant for the FAO and a Food Research Fellow for Data For Progress, where she writes food and agriculture policy for the Green New Deal.
Founder of nonprofit, Herbicide-Free Campus, welcome Mackenzie Feldman.[00:00:30] Mackenzie Feldman: Hi Nomi. Thank you for that introduction. It’s good to be here. [00:00:34] Nomi Carmona: It’s good to have you. A long time, no see. [00:00:37] Mackenzie Feldman: Long time, no see. [00:00:39] Nomi Carmona: So where, where do we find you today in the world? Where are you? [00:00:43] Mackenzie Feldman: I am in Honolulu, Hawaii. On the island of Oahu. [00:00:47] Nomi Carmona: And that’s where you’re from? [00:00:49] Mackenzie Feldman: Yep. That’s where I’m from born and raised. And back here now to help my mom with her election. Because she’s running for state house and the election’s on Saturday. So. [00:01:00] Nomi Carmona: Very busy. Well, be sure to make a good use of your time. So you started in Hawaii, but you did all this stuff in California. How did things start? Like what was your first exposure to activism? Was it in Hawaii or at UC Berkeley? [00:01:15] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, it was, you know, I mean, I think growing up in Hawaii, you always have this sense of love for the natural world. And maybe this sense that resources are finite because you’re living on an island. And for me, the issue of, of pesticides and all of that really started in high school, when I was in high school. And you and so many other people were working on, you know, getting these GMO, getting GMO testing, uh, banned and getting these agrochemical companies out of the islands. For those of you who don’t know, you know, Hawaii was and still is in a lot of ways ground zero for industrial agriculture. And they were doing an immense amount of genetic, uh, engineering, testing on the, the seed corn and spraying, you know, 17 times the amount of restricted use pesticides on our small islands compared to the U.S. mainland. And so, mostly, you know, low income native Hawaiians who are living near these agrochemical fields are getting, high rates of, you know, they’re receiving all of the drift from these fields and there is high rates of cancer and birth defects. And I know some of those companies have since moved to other places, but I know a lot of that is still happening. And so really, it’s really sweet to be here and really full circle moment because I know Nomi was one of those activists and so many other folks that inspired me. And at the time when I was in high school, you know, me and my mom, we didn’t even know what a GMO was. And my friend told us, you know, that did you know that most of the papayas in Hawaii are genetically modified? And we didn’t even know what that meant. And so we started looking into it and we learned that, you know, the majority of what crops are designed to do when they’re genetically modified is to resist pesticides. And we were learning about all of this and I really wanted to join that movement. But just didn’t didn’t know how to plug in at the time. And so it took me, kind of to go on this journey and come back to, to really find my place in, in the movement, in, in the work. [00:03:13] Nomi Carmona: And you sure did. I feel like you were very instrumental to helping us finally get all the herbicides off of school campuses in Hawaii. Can you tell me a little bit about that? [00:03:24] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah. That, and I’ll have to, maybe I can touch on this a little bit later, but that was, I started this campaign at, at Berkeley. And then there was a Roundup trial of, of Lee Johnson Versus Monsanto, a school groundskeeper, Lee Johnson, who used Roundup on the job and got diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And I went to the trial in San Francisco and became friends with him and wrote him a note during the trial and just saying, you know, how inspired I was of, of the fact that he was suing this company and standing up to one of the largest, you know, agrochemical monsters in the world. And just how we started a campaign at UC Berkeley to ban herbicides. And I knew a lot of folks that I knew in Hawaii were watching this moment and it was this really landmark case. And he ended up writing me back and asking how he could get involved with my campaign. And he became our advisor. And, we, uh, I worked with activists in Hawaii to bring him and his whole family to Hawaii. That was part vacation because he was diagnosed with this terminal illness and also part strategic meetings where he met with the Department of Education and some Parks and Rec folks. And, when the, the Board of Education heard his story, they were so moved by it. And you could really see that he was damaged from this chemical and there’s lesions all over his skin. And he has said, you know, I know, I know, I sprayed this job. I sprayed this herbicide on the job every day. And, I really don’t think that anyone else should be spraying it because it gave me cancer. And so people were so moved by that, that they ended up the next day deciding to ban it from ban all herbicides from every public school. So that was like a super huge victory and a really quick one for folks who are, do this work, you know, those battles often take years. And so that was just like really amazing experience. And just shows you that when you do center the voices of the people who are the most impacted, like that’s the best way to make change. [00:05:32] Nomi Carmona: Yeah. And I kind of remember the Department of Education coming out with a statement that I was a little confused by at the time, because I feel like they also kind of tried to say, oh, it’s been banned. It’s just now it’s officially for sure banned. Do you remember that? It was a little bit strange. They kind of acted like, like it had not been allowed, but now it was gonna get like enforced or something. [00:05:56] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, the, the whole thing was kind of funny actually, because they, it was, there were, you know, people in, um, in, you know, there was like some Reps in the House that were pushing for this for a while, who worked in the education system and the department said, “You know, we don’t spray these herbicides. I don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t spray them.” And so it was like really difficult to even have the conversation because they didn’t acknowledge that they were spraying this. So we had this meeting and it was at, in the library of one of the, one of the high schools. And there was a teacher there. She was an agriculture teacher and she ended up showing up to the meeting. And in the meeting, it was discussion and the, the Department of Education was saying, you know, at the meeting, “We don’t spray these chemicals.” And then one of the teachers raised her hand and said, “Hey, I’m a teacher at this school. And I spray Roundup every week. And I teach the kids, the students, how to, how to, do this.” And everyone was like, wait, what? And so then the, and the newspaper was there and the news. And so then the Department of Education couldn’t really refuse this because here was a teacher acknowledging that she sprayed this every single week. And so it was kind of this, like, and she was really against everything that we were doing. She was saying she wanted to keep spraying it. But it was this insanely beautiful moment of like, wait, she just admitted that this was happening. Now, what are you gonna say? And so then they had to say, “Oh, okay, we’re not gonna spray this anymore.” So yeah, I don’t know to what extent they actually acknowledged that they ever did, but here she was saying that she did. So it was, that’s why it happened so fast actually, which was awesome. [00:07:34] Nomi Carmona: That’s amazing. The little stories underneath. And so what, you know, why did you feel compelled to get things started at UC Berkeley? Like you started with volleyball courts? What’s that story? [00:07:47] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, I played on the beach volleyball team at Berkeley and I had heard, I did a research paper when I was a sophomore. because my teacher had said that they sprayed herbicides on campus. And I, you know, was interested in that because obviously coming from Hawaii and, and I was following this movement of the activists there. But I didn’t really know what to, how to plug in and do activism around this. Like Berkeley was such a huge school, but I was hearing that they were spraying. But it wasn’t until I was a junior and I showed up for beach volleyball practice one day. And our coach said, “If the ball rolls off the court, just let it go.” Because an herbicide had been sprayed everywhere around the court. These courts were kind of in, in a forest area and there was grass and plants around the court. And so me and my teammate were shocked and we were like, wait, what, what was sprayed? Like, could you introduce us to the athletics groundskeeper who did this? And, you know, we’re young women in reproductive age with skin exposed and it was rainy season. And these, the rain takes the soil and, and, moves it everywhere. So it’s not like these chemicals are just staying in one place. And so we were really concerned about all of that. And we met with the, with the guy who had sprayed and we were prepared with all of these, you know, research papers and all of that. And he said he was spraying Ranger Pro, which the active ingredient is glyphosate, which had been declared a probable carcinogen a couple years before. And that was actually the exact product that Lee Johnson would spray on the job. And we just said, you know, could you not spray that where we’re practicing? And he said, “Yeah, I totally, that’s fine. I just don’t have the staff to pick the weeds by hand.” And so we said, all right, well, we have a whole team of girls. Like we can pick the weeds for you, just don’t ever spray this again. And he was totally cool with that. And so it was this really, awesome learning opportunity. And we realized, you know, maybe sometimes this isn’t as hard as we think we just have to come at it with the solutions. And not to say that this is bad. But really, if we’re gonna, if we’re willing to put in work to help, then maybe we can actually get this done. So we took that model and he never, he never sprayed that again. And we ended up taking that model and expanding it to the rest of campus and started a student group. And I wrote an op-ed in the school paper talking about how we wanted to change the whole campus and ended up someone from the community, reached out and gave us a grant to bring in an expert to train all of our groundskeepers at the school on how to manage the, the spaces organically. And it was a pilot project and we were able to choose two spaces. And so we were really lucky that the grounds manager for the whole campus was on board with this. But at first, when we contacted him, we said, hey, you know, um, what, why are you spraying this? And this is dangerous. And this is bad for the environment and all of this. And we were met with basically just silence. And it wasn’t until maybe after the 10th email that was ignored, we decided, hey, maybe we should change up the language and come at this with the, with the opportunity to get involved and help. And we said, you know, thank you so much for what you do for our campus. Could we meet with you to just talk about how to help make it, you know, more sustainable and reduce the amount of chemicals? And so he was like, “Sure, let’s get coffee and talk about it.” So that was another learning opportunity where it’s just, sometimes it’s just about language. And we met with him and he, he applied for that grant and brought in the expert. And so now UC Berkeley is 95% organic. There’s still, we still wanna get the sports fields to go organic. And there’s still certain instances where, like with eucalyptus trees, they apply an herbicide around the base of it if, if they’re trying to kill the tree as a fire hazard. So obviously we’re not, pro killing trees, but that’s just like a whole other conversation about fire. And so it gets kind of complicated with that. But what we’re really trying to focus is at least on spaces where there’s a congregation of students and community members and where students were just laying down on the grass and had no idea they were being exposed to toxic chemicals. [00:11:57] Nomi Carmona: Well, and what kind of harms are college students facing from exposure to herbicides on campuses that still use pesticides? [00:12:06] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah. I mean, they spray, so they spray glyphosate pretty much, I mean, there is a handful of colleges across the country that don’t spray chemicals. So you can assume that most of them do. And same with parks and other spaces. And so, yeah, they’re spring glyphosate, which is a probable carcinogen. They’re spraying 2,4-D, which, um, was the active ingredient in Agent Orange from the Vietnam War. I mean, if you look at the history of, of chemicals used in agriculture and landscapes, like it came from war. That’s, they had an excess amount of these chemicals after World War II and they are using them to this day in, in agriculture and in public spaces. So they’re still spraying 2,4-D on a lot of campuses. Um, a lot of other things that are, you know, harmful for reproductive health, cause cancer, um, cause neurological effects. I mean there’s a lot. And the problem is it’s, Lee’s case was rare where it happened so quickly for him, but usually you wouldn’t see the impacts for, you know, 10 or 20 years. and sometimes with things like endocrine disruptors, like you know, it’s like the smaller the dose could actually be more poisonous. And so, you know, it doesn’t matter that maybe they’re only spraying a little bit here, a little bit there. If it’s, if you’re exposed to this over a long period of time, it can have really harmful health damages, especially for, for young people. Um, and for little kids who are, you know, come to visit campuses cuz and they spray this around playgrounds too, and little kids are putting, you know, their hands in their mouths and they’re smaller, and so they’re a lot more vulnerable. And it’s just a crazy issue that most people don’t think about. And there’s not usually you, you don’t get like a warning sign on a lawn. [00:13:51] Nomi Carmona: Right. Right. And is this the only herbicides that you’re focused on or, I mean, it’s Herbicide-Free Campus, but do you deal with all pesticides or why herbicides? [00:14:02] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean the goal is really to go chemical free and when we brought in an expert, he is reducing, he’s eliminating everything, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, synthetic fertilizers. If so, if you’re kind of new to this, “pesticides” is the umbrella, that’s any chemical used to kill a pest. And then within that there’s insecticides, chemicals used to kill insects. There’s fungicides used to kill fungus, rodenticides, and then there’s herbicides, which are used to kill weeds. The reason we focus on herbicides is because on college campuses, if you’re talking about pesticides, a lot of it is talking about like bed bugs in the dorms and insect infestations and other things that are just not in our wheelhouse. So we really try to focus on herbicides, but in the transition, the goal is really to get rid of all synthetic chemicals. And I think for herbicides, it’s like a really strong moral argument. Because if there’s an infect infestation, that’s just something that we’re not experts in. But with, with herbicides, it’s just designed to kill weeds and weeds are just unwanted plants. And so, you know, if students decide they would rather have dandelions than get cancer, like that’s a super valid, moral argument to make. And I think it opens up this opportunity for students to be empowered and, and advocate for the type of campus that they wanna be on. And it’s not just about eliminating herbicides. But it’s about, you know, how can this campus save water? How can we build soil health and sequester carbon? Build, have more food scapes on campuses, introduce more native plants. Like eliminating herbicides is really just the baseline. It’s really, you know, rewilding these spaces essentially. And we like to say decolonize aesthetics, like think about what the campuses look like prior to colonization and not just have these like sprawling lawns on campuses. So I guess that’s all to say, we focus on herbicides because we’re thinking about, you know, how do we, how do we live with weeds or how do we think of creative ways, if we don’t want them, or how change the maintenance of a campus. And so that’s, that’s really why, why we’re focused on that. [00:16:17] Nomi Carmona: Perfect.
Nomi Carmona: Okay, we’re gonna take a break for a quick public service announcement.
The Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act, aka PACTPA, doesn’t just protect kids. It protects our farm workers and environment too. The U.S. uses over a billion pounds of pesticides annually, which is almost a fifth of global use. Our bodies, our animals, and our environment cannot handle this much poison. PACTPA bans organophosphate insecticides like chlorpyrifos, bird and bee killing neonicotinoid insecticides, and paraquat, one of the most toxic herbicides in the world. It will also create a process to get our EPA and government back in check on pesticides and provide protections for farm workers who grow our food. It’s not okay to poison anybody. Sign the petition to your U.S. Senators to support and pass PACTPA at tinyurl.com/PACTPA. That’s P A C T P A.
Nomi Carmona: And we are back speaking with Mackenzie Feldman.
Nomi Carmona: You talked about coming in with different approaches and sometimes the language makes all the difference. And I think a lot of people are really inspired by your story. So any lessons that you’ve learned out of that, um, are helpful to reflect on, like, you know, what kind of pushback were you getting, or do you get from different schools and how, how have you overcome it?[00:17:42] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah. Yeah. So after we did this at Berkeley, we got the UC… I graduated and had no intention of really expanding the campaign. But when the Lee Johnson Versus Monsanto trial happened, I realized, you know, this was such a momentous, victory, and there’s gonna be a lot of, you know, momentum around this, this chemical. And it will be, people will be talking about it. And it’s a good time to kind of expand the work. And there were students reaching out asking how to do this on their campus. And so we expanded to other UC schools and ended up getting them to ban glyphosate from all 10 schools. And now we have this fellowship where we train students all over the country on how to bring their camp, this campaign to their campus. So, yeah, we’ve worked with, I’ve worked with a lot of schools at this point and the challenges, I, I think the biggest challenge is the the oh, like the cost or the, um, the preconceived idea that there will be an added cost to going organic. A lot of these groundskeepers are already, you know, overworked. And so the idea that they’re gonna have to learn something new and you know, how much is it gonna cost? And I think we try to explain in the short term, there might be some added costs of, you know, learning all these new things. But in the, in the long term, it’s actually gonna save, it’s gonna save water. It’s gonna save money. Cause you’re not buying synthetic inputs. And there, you know, you’re adding, adding benefits to the soil and there’s so many benefits. So I think it’s like, it’s both this maybe upfront added cost, even though universities have so much money. But those aren’t always trickled down to the, the grounds team’s budget. But it’s also this lack of knowledge. Like I think people are just trained in a certain way to do things and maybe that’s just how to apply pesticides. And so you’re asking them to really change their practices. And if they don’t know how to do that, then you know, you’re always gonna be hesitant to, to learn something new or to have to change the way that you’re doing something if you don’t know how. So I think there’s a huge opportunity here for people to, to learn new ways of doing things. And not, you know, new contractors necessarily coming in and replacing, other people’s jobs. Really training the people who are already there and employed by the school on how to, how to do this. And at the end of the day, it’s safer for their health. You know, they’re the ones that are being exposed to, at the highest rate to these chemicals. [00:20:22] Nomi Carmona: Does Herbicide-Free Campus at this point, like, come in and do the training for the groundskeepers, or is it still kind of looking for funding for grant to fund the groundskeepers re-education? [00:20:33] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, we don’t do any of the training. We are not experts in that way. At Berkeley, we brought in Chip Osborne. If you’re in the land care kind of space, like you’ll know he is, he is one of very few people who does this, which is, which is hard because we need a bunch of Chip Osbornes all over the country. Cuz he really flies all over and does these trainings. And he’s really amazing and technical, and he does soil testing, and he teaches how do you, um, you know, do aeration and compost tea and overseeding and all of these practices. But he is just one person. And so we’re really trying to figure that out right now. Find local groups who could come in and do this and, um, like at Grinnell College, for example, in Iowa, the, the students ripped up the grass and planted native prairies. So they didn’t, and they, there was a, they worked with the, the grounds crew and, and a horticulturist who was hired to work on this. But, they were told like, there’s no way to bring in the native prairie without using Roundup. Because in order to kill the grass first, we’re gonna have to spray everything with the Roundup. And so they were like, well, what’s the point of doing this awesome native prairie project if we’re just gonna first spray everything with Roundup. So they brought in like a bunch of volunteers, students, a ton of wheelbarrows, and they did like a bunch of manual work to get rid of this sod without using Roundup. So that was a really cool project, I can share it. There was an article about it, but, so there’s definitely like really creative ways to do landscaping without having to necessarily bring in, you know, an expert who just transitions lawns from conventional to organic, really depends on those aesthetic goals of the campus. And we put out a report recently of highlighting some schools that have done the transition, not, not with us, but just sort of on their own. And that’s Seattle, Harvard, um, Cascadia Community College, which shares a campus with University of Washington Bothell and a couple of other schools. And they, they did it in all sorts of different ways. I think one of ’em was just the groundskeeper deciding, you know, we’re not, we’re not gonna use chemicals anymore. We’re gonna do it differently. And so they just figured out how to do it. And, Harvard hired outside consultants to come in and it was a whole 10 year long term plan. So it looks different on different campuses for sure. But I think that’s a huge space if you’re young and you wanna get into this industry. I think like, environmentally friendly landscaping, there’s like a huge need for more people who are into that. [00:23:10] Nomi Carmona: Yeah, I mean, I think about it every time I look at neighborhoods full of lawns. I’m just like, ah, could be food. This could be native. Are you using pesticides? Is this bee and baby safe? You know? And speaking of that, so college campuses are one thing. Are there any plans to expand this into public schools, elementary schools, high schools, junior highs, you know. [00:23:36] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah. I, in, in 2020, we worked with some high schools on it because they were interested and I wanna just be able to give everyone the resources. It was a challenging time, I think mostly cuz everything was virtual and just advocacy in general was just tough. But I think, I think if there’s any student who ever is interested in this, we will provide resources and help. I think the hard part is college campuses just have such a different culture. And when I was working with high school students, like the advocacy and direct action, like it’s just super unfamiliar, for high school students to do that and like uncomfortable, frankly, for them to stand up against their administration in a, you know, different than like college campuses that have always been the center of activism and social movements and, and change. Whether you’re talking about, you know, divestment or, protesting war, or herbicide use. So it, I think for now we know how it’s like this very cookie cutter solution. Like we know how to get this done on college campuses and we have a, a ton of work to do on those campuses. Like we wanna get every campus to go organic. So that’s our focus, but yeah, I mean, if you’re a high school student or elementary student or teacher and you want resources like, we definitely wanna help you. [00:24:54] Nomi Carmona: Yeah. And I love that. You know, it’s like when we were working on GMOs and chemicals in Hawaii, you know, you hope, and with Babes Against Biotech at least, we hope that all the babes will go and start their own thing. Is it kind of like that with Herbicide-Free Campus where you’re like, we wanna help, we wanna foster you. And we really hope that you take that on someday in terms of expanding it into something else. Because you can’t do everything as one group. It’s difficult. [00:25:21] Mackenzie Feldman: Right. And we actually, I’m so really excited about this, but we just put together this bootcamp. Um, we’re actually like doing it this week. So we’re gonna be on our third day tomorrow. So it’s like a six hour training for, it’s free for students and it’s open to everyone, community members, whatever. We have like a suggested donation for community members and it’s, a few hours of just pesticide education. So like the history of pesticides, environmental justice, and pesticides, everything like that. And then the second half is dedicated to advocacy. So it’s like how to build your team, how to, you know, start a campaign. And so I’m hoping that that could be, the place where we can educate all types of people and not just students. And it’s really the same idea, whether you’re a student or a community member, like you still wanna recruit people, you still wanna have the same, you wanna have campaign goals and things like that. And so finally, I think we’re able to offer something that goes beyond just college students. [00:26:18] Nomi Carmona: Yeah. And does it, is it always like a, we gotta just pull the weeds kind of a thing or is it just really depend on the terrain, what that campus and that community wants and needs in terms of making the transition? [00:26:32] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah. It really depends. And, and to your earlier question of like, you know, the resistance that you face. I think it so depends. Like you could have a grounds manager on a campus that’s really into doing this. And that’s all you need. You don’t need to convince anyone higher up. But if they’re resistant, then yeah, you gotta take it to their boss. Or, you know, the president of the school. With the UCs, it was the Board of Regents, and they were moved by the litigation. And they were frankly like scared of litigation after the Roundup trials. And so they wanted to get, to ban glyphosate. So it’s like, okay, great. That’s your angle. We’ll take it. So it, it, in terms of yeah, who, who you’re convincing, it really depends. And in terms of like, yeah, what the goals are, I think that’s like where we want students to come in and we say, hey, you know, you’re paying to go to this school. You should have a say in what it looks like. Yeah, we could find someone to come in and transition the lawns to organic. But do we want lawns? Maybe not everywhere. Maybe this is a chance to, we could grow food here. And that’s what we really are trying to do more of now. Like we’ve kind of are seen as just this organization that’s eliminating herbicides, but it’s really, that’s just the baseline, you know, like it’s, especially with climate change and, and biodiversity loss, like how can we bring in pollinators? How can we make campuses these, you know, carbon sponges, frankly, and like do everything that we can to make these spaces resilient and show the communities like this is what your, your space could look like. Now let’s get this into, let’s design every public space to be like this. And so, yeah, I think it depends like in some areas, yeah, you might need, you might, we could have students weeding areas. In other places it’s, okay, maybe it’s finding an organic alternative to Roundup. In other areas, it’s soil testing and making the soil so healthy that it can outcompete this, this area can, they can outcompete the weeds and weeds won’t come in the first place because there’s no soil imbalances. Other places, maybe it’s mulching, like really, maybe you can bring in goats to, they do that in the Berkeley Hills and the goats eat the weeds. So it’s really just, there’s a lot of solutions. [00:28:52] Nomi Carmona: There’s a lot of solutions. You just have to be dedicated not to like expose everyone to pesticides. And, you know, you said something earlier about, why maybe it’s more easily facilitated on college campuses and you mentioned direct direct action. And I’m just kind of like wondering what kind of direct action has Herbicide-Free Campus, you know, been involved in that sounds kind of exciting. [00:29:19] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, I, and I really wanna do more of that too. I think that was one of the hard parts with every movement during COVID was just like not getting to do direct actions. Um, we, so after we, yeah, with Berkeley, it was pretty, pretty smooth. I mean, I think we, we didn’t really need to do that because the grounds manager was on board. But when we expanded this to other campuses, we, we had a petition and everyone who signed it, it like automatically sent the president of, of the UCs an email. So we had like thousands of people sending her emails. And then we had an open letter that was signed by a bunch of groups on the different campuses. And we showed up at her office and she didn’t come out, but we gave it to her assistant. So, there was that, and, and we really encourage our students to show up to like the Regents meetings. So I had showed up and spoke at a bunch of them. A bunch of students have come and even community members, doctors who were part of the UC system, like a bunch of people have come in and given testimony. And so there was that sort of thing. In terms of more radical things like sleeping overnight at the, in the hall or things like that. Like I would be so interested in, in having our students do that sort of thing. We haven’t really gotten to that place yet. And we always say, you know, don’t start a petition until you’ve actually talked to these, at least attempted to talk to these people. They probably will ignore you and then do the petition. But, you know, give them the, at least the, the chance to have a conversation first before you actually do, any direct action. But yeah, once you get to the point that, you know, no one is gonna listen to you, then heck yeah. And we’ve done other things too, of, of just like, like chalk art, that say like “use hands, not herbicides” and have done… [00:31:08] Nomi Carmona: remember that. I feel like I was gonna ask about chalk. I feel like I might have been nearby in that area. [00:31:14] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, exactly. And I think the more you can make it really a pleasant, beautiful fun experience and have these fun social gatherings that also are activism. I think that’s, you know, better. [00:31:28] Nomi Carmona: Yes. And the use of our very limited time in this capitalist society that asks so much of us every day, but not very much to relax and have fun. [00:31:39] Mackenzie Feldman: Mm-hmm. [00:31:39] Nomi Carmona: Have you had any kind of like run ins with anyone from the chemical companies or any kind of agitation there. Or like have they objected or tried to stop Herbicide-Free Campus’ work in any way? [00:31:56] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, one interesting thing that happened, this was a few years ago, I think I’ve told you this story, but, when, so when the UC is temporarily banned glyphosate, and then they put together a task force of people who could kind of decide the future. What does the future use of herbicides look like on the UC campuses? So that task force was you had to, um, submit any conflict of interest. And someone asked, a Regent asked about that and you know, what was a conflict of interest, for these task force members and they said, you know, there was no substantial conflict of interest with any of the members. So it was made up of doctors and, like a legal counsel person. And there was a student, which is my co-founder of the campaign, Bridget was on the task force and, like a weed scientist and other people. And so this weed scientist from UC Davis, he wrote a letter to the UC president saying how we should bring back glyphosate and actually doesn’t cause cancer and all these things. And so that letter got forwarded to me from someone on the task force and was like, what the heck? The whole point of this task force was to figure out how we’re gonna manage this without glyphosate. We’re not, the point wasn’t to fight about bringing it back. And so my mom actually like did some Google search on this guy and found out he had taken like $700,000 from Monsanto and Syngenta and some other chemical companies, in grants and research that he was doing. And he is like proudly on the Monsanto website at the time, for being a weed science, like, you know, doing research for them on weed science. So we took this up with the task force and said, “How is $700,000 from the chemical companies, not, you know, substantial conflict of interest?” And so they removed him from the task force, but that was sort of the first thing. And then we had a, a piece actually recently, we had a piece in U.S. News that was really exciting, that it was an op-ed I wrote with one of my colleagues about just the movement that we’re doing. And then we had a piece come out right after that, that slammed us. And I could see if I can find it. It was from a front, one of the, front groups for, you know, all the, of the [00:34:12] Nomi Carmona: Right. There’s, there are several that operate as front groups and have fancy other names like Cornell Alliance for Science. [00:34:23] Mackenzie Feldman: Right, this was the American Council on Science and Health. And it was so mean, so that the article we wrote highlighted one of our students, Charlene from Brandeis, and the work that she’s doing. And, she comes she’s, uh, student of color who comes from a low income background. And both her parents really had to, work really hard. And frankly, these types of roles is like agricultural workers that get her to the place that she’s at. And the whole article who, they don’t know anything about her and basically framed her as this, you know, spoiled rich college student who is stupid and doesn’t know anything about… I’ll, I’ll send you the article here, but it was, it was just mean, and I, I always was like really excited because I was like, oh, this means we’re finally on their radar. But she was like really sad about it. And she was like, oh my God, these people don’t know anything about me. Like, why did they write this? And I was like, don’t worry about it. This is ultimately a good thing, cuz it means that they’re scared of us, but it basically just talked about how climate anxiety is stupid and these students don’t know anything. So you know, it is what it is, but… [00:35:27] Nomi Carmona: You know, consider it a badge of honor. I have been called so many strange things by chemical industry front groups. [00:35:35] Mackenzie Feldman: Oh my God. I can’t imagine Nomi. [00:35:38] Nomi Carmona: Oh my gosh. They said I was a Rand Paul’s daughter and a trust fund baby whose, I wish, you know, whose limousine picked me and the Babes Against Biotech up for every hearing, from my mansion. I was like, have you seen, I’ve been wearing the same pumps to every hearing for like a year and a half. And I am not a trust fund kid, but they’ll really try anything and everything. So I hope she feels kind of better about it now. Like you’re on the list. Welcome. [00:36:07] Mackenzie Feldman: Right. I know. That’s what I try to tell her. [00:36:10] Nomi Carmona: I do, I do love messing with them though. Um, okay. So, you know, a lot of people are very inspired by your journey. You have gotten a ton of press attention. I feel like I’m always seeing you doing like really interesting panels and just working with groups all across the country and probably even outside of the country too. But creating a nonprofit is a huge undertaking. And most people, you know, might have an idea, but find it very daunting. So like, how did that come about? Did anyone help you? Like, how did you, how did you get funding, get started, where you taught how to do this at UC Berkeley? How did you do all this? [00:36:51] Mackenzie Feldman: You know, was not taught how to do this at UC Berkeley. And I think for anyone who’s thinking about starting a nonprofit, I would say, don’t do it unless there really is not a, a group that’s, there’s no other group out there that’s doing what you’re doing. And for me, I really tried to contact all these big green organizations to say, you know, Sierra Club and Greenpeace and, Friends of the Earth and all, all these groups to say, hey, could we create a little program to, focus on ridding herbicides on college campuses. And, and I think at the time being so young and not having a huge track record of success, like that was, it was clear that like, if, if this was to happen, like I was gonna need to start this on my own. And so we did because no one else was doing it. And so that’s the really the reason why it was essential for us to create this nonprofit. And so, yeah, I graduated in 2018. I, it was clear that like, there was a need for this and it wasn’t happening. And so it took me. Yeah, it was a really tough time. I think now, like we just had a meeting the other day with our new cohort of students and there was like 30 people on the call and students from all over and it was so awesome. And it was so easy to think sometimes like how it is really smooth now. And I like forget almost like how challenging of a time that was. I had to work a couple of jobs because I wasn’t, you know, finding, figuring out how to make money from doing this. So it was a lot of just… it was months of just calling people at first and learning, you know, how do I do this? Yeah. How do I start a nonprofit? And so in, instead of creating my own 501c3, I was fiscally sponsored and I got Beyond Pesticides to convince them to sort of, oh, actually first, no, it was Food and Water Watch. We were a program of Food and Water Watch and then later part of Beyond Pesticides. And Food and Water Watch trained me and Bridget when we were students at Berkeley on how to do this. And so it was like a, a really natural partnership. Yeah. And so I think it was, yeah, it was, talking to a ton of people, learning. And then I, I think, um, Anna Lappé, who’s one of my mentors. Like she worked with the foundation and they were one of our people to give us like a little bit of money to try to get this off the ground. And I remember meeting with Kat Gilead. And I was at this point like having mental breakdowns because it was just me and I didn’t know how to do this and I didn’t have money to hire anyone. And I was kind of going crazy. And I remembered I had met Kat and at an event and I ended up emailing her and asking to meet. And she was just so wonderful. And we had this great conversation about how women always tend to ask for less money than men. And, it was like, she was kind of hyping me up to like, okay, you gotta like ask people for money. So then by the end of the conversation, she was like, okay, well I gotta run. And I was like, okay, well, you know, would you wanna fund us? And she was like, yeah, how much? And I had no idea, like what to say. And so I kind of just threw out a number and she ended up, really like doubling the number that I said, because I had no idea how much things really cost at that point. And so her Ceres Trust was really our first big breakthrough. And, I think like if I could give one piece of advice for folks who are like doing something on their own and really stressed about it. Like as much self care and all that stuff is important to do, I think for me, it was like, I needed to find, I needed to hire other people. So it wasn’t just me. And so that cost money obviously. So like getting money to hire people then made all the difference. And now, like I have a, a team of, we have six of us and three of us are full-time, three part-time and a lot of like, those are the same people who’ve sort of like been with me for years now and just really believe in the mission. And we still, you know, are super scrappy young team and are always obviously needing to grow and, and raise money so we can bring more people full-time. But I think, yeah, that was sort of the first big break. And then from there I learned once you get money from a foundation, it’s easier to convince other foundations to trust that and to give money. And it was just, yeah, a lot of just, I think Kat and, and Anna Lappé have really been mentors for me and just, I’ve learned a lot from a lot of different people. And so I always try to, if young people, young college students are, you know, wanting to talk and need advice, I always try to make time for that. Because people really made time to help me with that and still learning a ton. But I think, yeah, it’s been a huge learning experience and I think also not letting perfect be the enemy of the good. Like you could spend years kind of learning how to make a nonprofit. And I’m sure I could have avoided a lot of mistakes if I knew things, but sometimes you just have to go in and, and do something. And you learn it on the job. [00:41:37] Nomi Carmona: Yeah. You’ve definitely gotten a lot done. I’m trying to remember how we first met and I feel like I must have seen your work somewhere and I saw Herbicide-Free Campus and I saw you were from Hawaii and I was… [00:41:49] Mackenzie Feldman: And yeah, you reached out on the website or something. [00:41:52] Nomi Carmona: I like, I reached out. I was like, who? You’re amazing. What are you doing? I love this. [00:41:56] Mackenzie Feldman: And then we talked and of course had like a million connections, which is always the case. [00:42:02] Nomi Carmona: I love Hawaii for bringing us… I truly believe Aloha is going to save the world. And if we can Aloha the, the actual planet and each other, maybe we can learn something from Hawaiians. [00:42:15] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, I totally agree. And I think, yeah, I think being, part native Hawaiian has always like it, it’s so ingrained in the culture and the, the language, you know, of just caring for the land and thinking of future generations. And that’s definitely a huge inspiration for my work and, you know… [00:42:35] Nomi Carmona: You’re an inspiration to many people too. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it a million times. I’m so proud of all the work that you do. And so delighted to know anything about it. And, and kind of just wondering, like, what would you tell young person who’s really inspired by you and wants to make an impactful difference? But they’re afraid. And, you know, did you have any fears coming into this and anything like that that you had to overcome? And also, you know, we get so much focus on like young people doing stuff, and I think that’s really important, but I feel like there are messages for every generation and it’s not just young people who need to get inspired to do things, even though they’re gonna be left with the bulk of the problems if the rest of us don’t. [00:43:17] Mackenzie Feldman: Right. I think just starting really small. I mean, when we took action on our volleyball court and never would’ve thought, yeah, this would be my full-time job now. And you know, something that has expanded to other schools and you can’t really think like that. Like you gotta just start, you know, notice things that are happening in your community that you wanna change. And I think once you get into this, um, this kind of flow of the work, maybe it, it sounds funny, but it’s just like, it, it kind of just happens. Like you start small and you do what you love and you like work hard and, and you try to learn from other people and then it, it will grow into something bigger. So I think for anyone who is looking to make change, like start small and look at the impact that you can make right where you are. And you never know where that will take you. And don’t worry if you’re a college student who’s stressed about, um, you know, what you’re gonna do after college. Like, obviously you have to think about that and find something that, can pay for you to, like have a job after college. But I think also, don’t freak out if everyone around you is already getting jobs and they already think that they know exactly what they wanna do. Like you could try something and realize it’s not for you and pivot to something else. And like the road is long. And, if you just focus on like, what gives you energy and what gives you passion. Like I like working with people. I like, you know, I, I like trying to get rid of herbicides and I, I think that was just kind of focused on that and it took me on this journey. And so just think about, oh, what gives you energy and what you care about and, and kind of just let the rest happen, I guess, is what I would say to that. And, and, and for, yeah, I totally agree with your point. It’s not, can’t just be young people. And also young people have so much to learn from people who’ve been doing this work for a really long time. And I think that is important for me to talk to even just people who were doing it a few years before me, like you and all these other people to just figure out like, what were the mistakes that other people made and how can we not just reinvent the wheel? And, you know, who’s already been doing what, where, I think like taking time to learn from people who’ve, who’ve done this for a long time. you know, is really, is really, really important. And, I’m even just thinking about that with this, with the climate bill that just got passed. Like I think of course with groups like Sunrise Movement and other climate justice organizations. Like the work wouldn’t have happened, but also people have been advocating for environmental protection for like decades, right? Like in the seventies, there’s a huge… so I think, yeah. Talk to people who’ve been in this work for a long time is important. [00:45:58] Nomi Carmona: Yeah. I feel like that too. My mentorships have been everything to me before and, and I feel like whenever there’s shenanigans, they’re trying to split off the old timers who’ve been at it for a long time, and know who’s who, and know who’s corrupt, from like the spirited young ones who have got this like fire to take it up. And that’s dangerous because if you’re missing that information about what’s happened before you, what’s been tried, what hasn’t worked, then you’re probably gonna fall into some of those traps. Like the fact that we’re still fighting the fact that the chemical industry has basically implied to everyone that organic is just so much more expensive. And it’s gonna make everything, your whole life, all your food, everything. You can’t afford to not eat glyphosate. And I think that’s a lie, so I’m happy to dispel any of that. So you, so you mentioned Sunrise and a lot of these other groups working on things like Green New Deal, you know, clean energy. It seems like people are not necessarily connecting the climate crisis to the emissions that are coming from deforestation and industrial agriculture, which I believe is like 24% of global emissions. What’s the, what’s getting missed there? How can we help people understand agriculture and like going herbicide-free in the context of the climate crisis? [00:47:19] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, I think in general, industrial agriculture and chemical use, pesticide use has really been missing from the climate conversation. I think for these younger groups, it’s because a lot of them came out of the divestment movement. So they’re just really focused on, you know, fossil fuels and getting, you know, colleges to divest from, from fossil fuels and things like that. And yeah, we’re missing the fact that pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in large part are derived from fossil fuels, they’re petroleum based in a lot of cases. And so I think that’s huge to, to speak about and educate people about. And the fact that in both in agriculture and in landscape, if we’re building healthy soil, it can sequester carbon, it can store more water. I mean, we’re seeing all these flooding, floods happening, but if there is healthy soil that can absorb some of that water, you would, you know, be able to kind of reduce that amount of flooding, especially as we’re gonna have more extreme weather in the future. And in places like California, where there’s a drought and there’s a huge emphasis on saving water. Like that’s something that we could easily do is just build healthier soil. And I think the last, the last part of that is just the fact that I think what’s exciting about focusing on college campuses is like I’ve said before college campuses, like have been seen as this, you know, beacon of knowledge by society. It’s the place where a lot of knowledge is first generated and then you see ripple effects happening. And so, what better place to show how spaces can be resilient in the face of climate change than college campuses, literally from the ground. Like you have experts focusing on climate change and soil health on campuses, but like, are people actually focused on the, the literal, you know, inputs that are happening on the ground of college campuses? So I think college campuses could be this huge place where they can connect, you know, the landscape with, being climate resilient in all the ways that, you know, eliminating herbicides, building healthy soil, bringing in more native plants, bringing in more pollinators can, combat this, these, these multiple crises we have of human health, climate change and, and biodiversity loss. [00:49:43] Nomi Carmona: Just, Yeah. You know, it kind of makes me wonder too. The news just came out the other day that all the rainwater on the earth pretty much is now unsafe to drink due to PFAS “forever chemical” contamination. And that makes me worry for a lot of reasons and, you know, cried for a long time when I heard that news was like a gut punch. And it also makes me wonder, you know, like all these things are connected. If we don’t stop PFAS. It’s already in the rainwater. That means it’s gonna go into the soil. How well is the soil going to be able to retain water and sequester carbon, if it’s coated in non-stick PFAS particles that are water resistant Uh, just makes me think like there’s no individual battle. And then there’s PFAS in pesticides too, and used for like lubrication equipment for just like almost so many things, everything and anything. It just makes me think like this fight against toxics, this fight against the companies that make GMOs to sell chemicals and pesticides, this fight for the climate, like it’s one and the same. And the sooner that we listen to that and let our indigenous stewards guide the way, like we’ve, we’ve certainly made a mess of things, but I’m happy to know that somebody like you is out there cleaning it up and we all gotta do our part. It’s not, they used to drive me bananas and people would say, oh, thank you so much for what you’re doing. It’s like, yeah, yeah, yeah. You want, can you help though? Can you help? Because I actually can’t do it. Or people come with ideas and it’s like, that’s a great idea. You should definitely do that because I’m actually doing all these other things. So I appreciate you taking on this, this puzzle piece of college campuses going herbicide free. And I have no doubt that it will lead to and reflect on lots of other necessary changes. [00:51:39] Mackenzie Feldman: Thank you. [00:51:40] Nomi Carmona: Yeah. [00:51:41] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, it’s definitely overwhelming when you, when you think about it, with all of the intricacies and the connections and, how it’s like, and factory farming and you know, what we’re doing to those communities and the, and the water and the environment. And so it really is all connected. I think the battle to stop climate change, can’t just be focused on, can’t just be about energy and fossil fuels. It has to be about, you know, the, the factory farming and the agriculture and everything together. And so, yeah, I think that at least, you know, Herbicide-Free Campus is just one small piece, but I hope that it can give people, especially young people who have a lot of climate anxiety, like something tangible that they can do on their campus and just take those lessons learned and apply it to whatever they end up doing after college. You know, cuz we are, these people will be the next generation of change makers. And so I hope giving them some insight onto how to advocate and how to make change in their campus could be useful after college [00:52:43] Nomi Carmona: Yeah, sooner than later. Thank you so much for your time, Mackenzie. And I just wish you and Herbicide-Free Campus all the best, all the funding that you need, all the staff that you need, all the support that you need and, and let that just multiply across our generations, so we could clean this place up and maintain and have a beautiful earth for the next seven generations, like we’ve got to enjoy. [00:53:06] Mackenzie Feldman: Mm-hmm. Thank you. [00:53:08] Nomi Carmona: And I would love to send folks to follow your work. So where do you wanna be found? Where do you want people to follow you? [00:53:15] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah, you can go to HerbicideFreeCampus.org, check out our website. Instagram, we’re also Herbicide-Free Campus. We’re on TikTok too, check us out there. Um, Twitter, um, I, I think Twitter handles slightly different, but if you type in Herbicide-Free Campus, you’ll find us. and yeah, if you’re, if you’re a student, like you can consider in the future applying to our fellowship or just reach out if you need resources. [00:53:40] Nomi Carmona: Yes. And I think your TikToks are very funny. I am delighting and seeing the next generation take on herbicides because I too enjoy stopping herbicides, Mackenzie. [00:53:52] Mackenzie Feldman: Yeah. And like you from Babes Against Biotech. Like, you know, you gotta make it kind of funny for people to wanna engage in this. [00:53:58] Nomi Carmona: Yes. I definitely have enjoyed making quite a few jokes on my political enemies, who just, for some reason, wanna keep releasing these herbicides in the environment. But then I also think about the shift in approaches and like what you said about language. Like, I wouldn’t necessarily do everything the same as I did with Babes in 2012 today. There may be other ways of going about it besides just immediately saying, ah, you’re terrible. Even though I think they, they are, that’s not necessarily getting us anywhere in the conversation to only say that. So I love that you’re coming in with these solutions and really kind of sounds like almost tailoring the programs to their locales and the people and communities of these places to inform, instead of just applying, so like thinking that a cookie cutter methodology is going to work exactly the same in all the places. So I too very inspired by you. I’m so glad that you were able to come on today. Thank you so much for coming on to Fork the System. [00:54:58] Mackenzie Feldman: Thank you so much for having me Nomi and you’ve been an inspiration and continue to be for me. So you never know kind of all the ripple effects you have and the people that will be impacted by it. So thank you for being my friend and inspiration. [00:55:12] Nomi Carmona: That means a lot to me, it gives me chicken skin, which I know from Hawaiians means we’re on the right path. So. Thanks Mac.
That wraps up this episode of Fork the System. Be sure to subscribe to GMO and Toxin Free USA’s YouTube channel and visit our website at gmofreeusa.org to sign up for our email newsletter. Stay on top of the things you need to know to Fork the System. You can follow us on social media at GMO Free USA on all platforms. And if you wanna follow me at Nomi Carmona, that’s N O M I C A R M O N A on all platforms. To view transcripts of this podcast, submit a guest idea or share some juicy news you want us to cover visit gmofreeusa.org/podcast or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also just send us a joke about those forked up systems, and we might just tell it on the air. That’s it for today. Thank you so much for listening. Let’s get out there and fork it up. We all need to eat, and we certainly can’t count on these overlords. So see you next time. Thanks, bye.
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